August 16, 2017
I have a question for the liberal white people in the room (you know who you are):
Do you ever find that by not associating with people who subscribe to a racist belief system that you can be incredibly out of touch with how to ultimately fight it?
It’s a question I recently posed on Facebook. And presumably a few of the liberal white friends in my social media circle chimed in with some interesting responses.
Some said they were deeply frustrated with white people who seem to categorically deny that racism even exists by never acknowledging it as a fundamental social problem, or who always seem to make excuses for racist friends and family members. Most said they don’t believe that racism will ever actually be eradicated, but that we can collectively shame people into being “woke.”
Still others pointed fingers at the sheer number of white people who voted for Trump (including here in Pennsylvania, the new red state) and anyone who supposes that we, as Americans, are actually living in a “post-racial” society.
Please tell that to the woman I know who tore down white power flyers on Temple’s campus this summer. There was nothing post-racial about that. In fact, as another Facebook friend pointed out recently, colleges and universities are bastions for hate speech. Campuses have become recruiting grounds for racist groups like we saw parading through the streets of Charlottesville this weekend, the same groups that say they’ll be back to Virginia again this month to honor a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
This is nothing new, of course. There have always been white people using scare tactics to terrorize people they deem less than. The only real difference between then and now is that they replaced the pointy white hoods with Make America Great Again hats.
“Who are these people?” I asked myself aloud as I watched the tragic events unfold in Charlottesville. “Seriously, who are these people?”
That I don’t know anything about these people may be part of the problem.
The biggest roadblock many white liberals face right now in fighting discrimination is the proverbial bubble, the place we comfortably exist with others just like us. Many of us only ever associate with like-minded people who tend to share our same values, who click on the same news stories and who complain about the same damn things over Frappuccino. We relish in our mutual discontent, almost seeking shelter in our smugness when the world gets to be a bit too chaotic. We post on Facebook. Accuse Trump of being a dictator. Take mental health days. And we can be downright contemptible about anyone who doesn’t share our most noble of worldviews – or anyone who may not listen to NPR like, you know, it’s their job.
When I watched that rag tag group of white supremacists parade across a Virginia campus, the embodiment of America’s most heinous legacy of racism (again – nothing new), with their knotted, sweaty faces lit ominously by store-bought Tiki torches, it was like looking into a void. Sure, these white people looked like me. I could have passed any of these men on the street in their Hollister tees and not looked twice. As seemingly innocuous as they might appear anywhere else other than in a swarm of chanting bigots, they might as well be from the moon. I simply don’t know what makes them tick or what would ever inspire one of them to turn his car into a weapon of terrorism.
Martin Luther King Jr., said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” But isn’t that a tall order for people we detest the most? How do any of us live by these words when we seem to do one heck of a job cocooning ourselves away from the racists in our midst?
These are some of the toughest questions I have ever asked of myself and my peers. But they are also among the most important for our country’s future.
It probably doesn’t help matters when I claim I don’t actually know white people who use the n-word, or who subscribe to white power beliefs and neo-Nazi rhetoric…that I know of. That’s the key, right? How can I be so sure? I might think that anyone who actually believes these things would likely not want to associate with me, a writer who confidently shares her worldview very publicly, or that these lowlifes wouldn’t dare say such things in my towering presence.
The truth is, often the closest I ever seem to come to a showdown with the white racist trolls burning up social media is in the comment section of the articles I write. It’s not exactly the stuff of polite dinner conversation, but it’s all I’ve got to go on.
This isn’t to say that white liberals are somehow deaf and dumb to the problems that persist for marginalized people. Quite the opposite: We are informed and we are pissed. But offline, it’s hard to know exactly how to approach these issues when we tend to keep the racist white people amongst us at more than an arm’s length.
Let’s be honest: How many of you deleted family members who voted for Trump after the election rather than try to find out why the hell they voted for Trump? And when was the last time you actually watched anything on Fox News before complaining about Fox News? Or read a conservative blog to bolster your own argument? My answer is five, during a segment with Tucker Carlson that made me want to hurl and yesterday.
I could do better. But I am human.
The truth is many progressives like myself are struggling with what it means to be a socially responsible citizen in the age of Trump. Posting to Facebook can feel more like pissing into the wind than making any real impact. Making cardboard signs and showing up at City Hall only goes so far. None of this seems to change the fact that marginalized people are still enduring the same discrimination that has haunted this country from the start, and that the oppressors seem to be fueling up for an even more explosive showdown.
As someone who came of age in an area of Pennsylvania not so kindly known as “Pennsyltucky,” my identity as a white liberal woman was carved out in an unlikely way in a very unlikely place. While some of the kids I grew up with now proudly sport #MAGA bumper stickers on their minivans, I went the other way. I embraced a progressive ideology tied to the 20th century’s civil rights, gay rights and feminist movement thanks to a family who encouraged me to think independently and a burning need to communicate.
I often felt like an outsider as a kid, like maybe I was a little too eager to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, to be different, to pin an AIDS ribbon to my lapel and do things that only ever separated me more from my peers. It was inevitable that I would move away from my hometown, a place where it’s become frighteningly more common to see Confederate flags waving.
I’ll admit it, I didn’t have it in me to stay and fight when I had big city lights on the brain. For better or worse, I wanted to assimilate. But even after almost two decades of living in Philly, I don’t have to dig too far to remember exactly how it feels to have a bleeding blue heart beating in a very red place.
Growing up, I saw the most vile ways racism can divide a small town, from how white people whispered insults about people of color to one another to the way districts were drawn to keep the poor even poorer. These realities about the lengths white people in power will go to maintain their power have never left me.
I can still remember classmates talking about the North side of town, as if it was a bad word, a place to score drugs, where all of the dirty Puerto Ricans lived, they said. I guess it was easy for suburban middle-class white kids to make these generalizations when most of my classmates didn’t even know a Latino family apart from the Spanish exchange student or the brown-skinned boy who sat very quietly in the back of the classroom. They certainly didn’t know that my best friend, a Puerto Rican, also lived in that part of town and I couldn’t wait to visit him each and every weekend.
As I got older, I would cringe when I’d hear someone say that the town just isn’t what it used to, code for racism in no uncertain terms. I could yell, scream, write editorials (I did all of those things) until I ultimately moved away to live the sort of life I imagined – or thought I imagined. But moving away didn’t stop discrimination from happening. It just changed the way it looked. It made it harder for me to confront the enemies I faced growing up now that they, too, were adults with even more insidious views.
Whether we admit it or not, most white people encounter day-to-day experiences with institutionalized and subtle forms of racism, misogyny and homophobia. It’s the white man in the SUV screaming obscenities at the African-America mother trying to cross the street with her baby (this happened two days ago in Old City). It’s the gay bar owner caught on video using the n-word to describe his customers (look it up on YouTube). It’s the young men who call the high school girls “f*&^ing bitches” for not responding to their most vile catcalls (near Rittenhouse Square last week). It’s taunts of the f-word to two men holding hands (this happened to my friends in June).
You may be thinking: Why is this my problem? I didn't vote for this. I deplore it.
These experiences are myriad, but they can be overlooked and ignored by people who may never find themselves targeted, people who by virtue of their white race or ordinariness seem to mostly pass by into an unseen and presumably unthreatening place. And this is a serious problem that only seeks to separate us more. If we can pass, if we can somehow escape the cruelty of discrimination, are we as apt to fight to the blood to defeat it? I don’t know. But it’s certainly no excuse not to try.
As a white person I have grown up with very different experiences from my black friends. For example, I have never been pulled over by police for driving in a wealthy suburb. My parents never coached me on how to behave with law enforcement. We knew cops and my Dad was even a constable at one time. Cops were considered trustworthy – like Catholic priests – until, well, they weren’t.
This weekend white people all over the country watched the events unfolding in Charlottesville. If they are anything like me, they wanted to blame someone. I know I wanted to blame the Republicans, the education system, the parents who taught their young sons and daughters how to hate.
Days later and I still want an answer that will allow me to feel less responsible for white America’s greatest sins, a place that seems so far removed from my own life that I can scarcely define it. I want to desperately figure out how people who, by all accounts, look just like me could possible say and do the things they did in front of the world so unlike me.
Skin color can bond a people, but it can also divide. For many of us, being white has far less to do with our identity than it may appear outwardly. It certainly does nothing to make sense of the overt racism we watched this weekend, nor does it explain away the fact that white people are all too often given a pass to behave abysmally and that other white people all too often stand by and say nothing as it happens. If you can’t at least admit this, you are most definitely part of the problem.
On the worst days when we see a car plow into protesters or yet another unarmed black man shot dead on the street while white militiamen parade publicly with assault weapons, what drives me to answer these questions is knowing that no pain I feel about the systemic racism by white America will ever possibly compare to what people of color and Native Americans have experienced in this country from day one. It’s not even close, which is exactly why we as white liberals don’t get to take a day off to binge on Netflix and eat Halo Top, at least not until we take a deeper look at ourselves.
I know what you’re probably thinking: You give to the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. You even stopped to talk to the woman from Planned Parenthood on the way to Hip City Veg last week. And that’s cool. It’s a great start. But we need to do a hell of a lot more, like correcting someone who uses an improper pronoun for a transgender person, or having a frank talk with your racist uncle who still refers to Asian-Americans in the pejorative.
Ask yourself: When was the last time I attended a multicultural event or talked honestly with a person of color? How many people of color or LGBT people do I even know and (this is the catch) spend any meaningful time with? Why did I not confront my co-worker when he made fun of a black woman’s hair? What do I really know about Black Lives Matter other than it was my profile pic for, like, a month?
You may also be thinking: Why is this my problem? I didn't vote for this. I deplore it. And I get that. I do. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t sit in utter bewilderment that the Donald is the POTUS who gets to threaten nuclear war and make cracks about police brutality. It can be overwhelming to confront our most shameful demons. But it is crucial if we want to stop expecting everyone else to fight the good fight for us.
I read a meme this week that said if you want to know how you would have reacted during slavery or the Holocaust, now you know. Not a single white liberal in this country has the right to stand by quietly while these ghastly forms of hate get repackaged and mainstreamed as the deceivingly misleading "alt right."
Doing and saying nothing makes us just as bad as them. Can you live with that, white people? I can’t.
So what's the solution? How long do we continue shouting across picket lines while the most marginalized among us are repeatedly and horrifically traumatized by all of the shouting? How many anti-fascist videos do we get to post before people know we aren’t fascist?
It’s not easy to reach out to people who think we are subhuman. Just ask the most marginalized among us, like the Holocaust survivor holding a sign that says “never again,” the great-great-grandson of a slave who plays with his kids in a park named after a Confederate general, or the grieving mothers of sons who have been killed by police. Ask folks in Black Lives Matter what horrible things people have shouted at them as they persisted. And by all means listen.
I want to earnestly believe that the recent explosion of hate we saw this weekend in a sleepy college town is a final hurrah, the last gasp from a people who are fast dying out (though certainly not fast enough for my taste). My analytical self, however, fears that the chaos we're witnessing is merely the embodiment of what has been bubbling beneath the surface all along - what black, gay, trans, Jewish and immigrant people have been telling us forever if we had only bothered to listen, I mean, really, really listen.
My fear today is that despite the steps we have taken toward hard-earned progress for minorities in the United States, steps owed to the marginalized people who fought back when it was most unpopular, like the black folks on Pettis Bridge and the drag queens at Stonewall, we will never escape our past. Nor should we ever forget that we are a country built shamefully on slavery.
Take a look around. We may have to admit to ourselves that it may only get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. I can’t not believe that. And I know my friends who are raising the next generation of kids can’t not believe that either.
My question now for white liberals is a deceivingly simple one, but one that requires honesty, introspection and a hearty dose of determination: What are you really doing to make a difference? And why aren’t you?
• • •
Natalie Hope McDonald is a contributor to PhillyVoice.com.